Excerpt of Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth
(Page 13 of 14)
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Perhaps because he sensed that while he might continue to oppose
Darwinism, he no longer could avoid the fact that it seemed to be on the
verge of prevailing among biologists - even his son, Alexander, had by
and large converted - Agassiz had gone out of his way to mend fences. In
the summer of 1864, disturbed and hurt by Grays public challenges, he
had insulted Gray "so foolishly and grossly," as Gray put it, that Gray
broke off all personal relations with him. Agassiz apologized two years
later, and ever since, the two had shown each other cordial respect. In fact,
evolutionary purists like Spencer, Youmans, and Huxley, and "accommodationists"
like Gray and Beecher, all welcomed Agassizs determination
to study the worlds nether regions afresh in light of Darwins work, and
they wished him unflagging health and success. "Pray give my most sincere
respects to your father," Darwin wrote in June to Alexander, a recent
member of his ever-widening circle of correspondents. "What a wonderful
man he is to think of going through the Strait of Magellan."
The Hassler steamed out of Charlestown harbor and into Cape Cod
Bay on a gray afternoon on December 4, just before a snowstorm, the first
of the season. The hopes Agassiz had formed of this expedition were "as
high as those of any young explorer," his wife, Elizabeth, who sailed with
him, wrote. For reading, he took along only Darwins books. A year after
despairing that he would never have the chance to finish all that he had
started, he looked ahead with gusto to warmer seas. He couldnt wait to
get started. "As soon as we reached the Gulf Stream," he reported to
Peirce in his next letter, "we began work."
"I am back from Germany more dead than alive," Youmans wrote to his
sister, Catherine, from London during the first week of December, "but
still a good deal vital." Visiting the Continent - reeling from war, radicalism,
and bloodshed - had been "a strange experience" in part due to
Spencer, who joined him in Paris ostensibly to help open doors for what
Youmans now called his "international scheme," but whose sensitivity to
criticism, Darwin-envy, and dependence on his American friend flashed
over during the visit.
Huxley, Darwins famously combative defender and chief popularizer
in England, had challenged Spencer in an article championing a free
public school system, which Spencer deplored as useless and destructive.
Largely self-taught, Huxley was among Englands foremost biologists,
having paved the way for The Descent of Man - drawing the poison, so to
speak - by publishing his own book on human evolution, Evidence on
Mans Place in Nature, in 1863. Darwinism and radical social theory had
become inextricable, yet international events had recently heightened antagonism
over the role of government, and Huxley and Spencer, while
scientific allies, clashed over how best to improve society. A year earlier,
German forces led by Prussia had conquered and humiliated France,
where starving Parisians, besieged and bombarded, were reduced to eating
dogs, cats, and rats, even the elephants in the zoo. For two months in
the spring, socialists and communards ruled the French capital until the
uprising was crushed, but not before unleashing the specter of mob rule.
A charged political climate in London - the Times, in a scathing editorial,
attacked the timing of Darwins release of Descent during the Paris
Commune as "reckless" - now polarized and inflamed every debate.
Huxley, in addition to writing, teaching, editing, and providing for a
household of ten children, was a furious social crusader. He took on too
much always, unable to resist new battles. He agreed during the fall to
serve with Spencer and Tyndall as English jury for Youmanss project;
pledged to write the first book in the series, on bodily motion and consciousness;
and took on duties on two royal commissions and the London
School Board. In his article on free schools in The Fortnightly Review, he
called Spencer to task for his views on the proper role of government: that
is, as Huxley wrote, "The State is simply a policeman, and its duty is neither
more nor less than to prevent robbery and murder and enforce contracts."
Excerpted from Banquet at Delmonico's
by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2009 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by
permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.